Carolina Panthers lambasted for Christian McCaffrey's historic contract

Hindsight is a wonderful thing to have, especially where NFL contracts are concerned.
Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

Did the Carolina Panthers make a grave mistake by giving Christian McCaffrey his historic extension after his All-Pro campaign in 2019?

Things are pretty bad for running backs these days. A growing reluctance to give them top dollar once their rookie deals conclude was brought to light further when Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard weren't extended long-term before the franchise tag deadline, which is the latest in a series of concerning trends relating to the high-profile position.

It seems as if teams are willing to run their backs into the ground while they are fresh coming out of college. When the time comes to reward them, most are now looking the other way.

One only has to look at the names still sitting on the free-agent market as additional evidence. For example, had someone like Dalvin Cook been released a few years ago, teams would have snapped him up almost immediately rather than the productive performer looking for work with training camps beginning across the country.

The Carolina Panthers bucked this trend somewhat when they signed Miles Sanders to a four-year, $25.4 million contract that included a $5.9 million signing bonus and $13 million guaranteed. Of course, it's not the first time they've done this, either.

Carolina Panthers criticized for Christian McCaffrey deal

When Christian McCaffrey enjoyed his 1,000-yard rushing and receiving campaign in 2019, it came at a time when the Panthers had no option other than to pay him accordingly. Trading him was another alternative, but the notion didn't get any serious consideration with a new coaching regime coming into the fold.

What came after that was jaw-dropping. Carolina allocated McCaffrey a four-year $64.06 million contract including a $21.5 million signing bonus and a whopping $38.16 million guaranteed. This was an NFL record for a running back and in hindsight, was a major mistake.

McCaffrey was an iron man before signing his new deal. After that, he featured 10 times over the next two seasons and once Matt Rhule was fired, general manager Scott Fitterer shipped the former first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers before the trade deadline.

Mistakes were made, but everything worked out in the end. McCaffrey landed on a contender and the Panthers accumulated enough resources to make their daring trade to No. 1 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft for quarterback Bryce Young.

The Stanford product is still counting $18.35 million against Carolina's dead cap in 2023. Something that led Douglas Clawson from CBS Sports to give the Panthers an F grade when examining recent running back contracts that potentially played a role in teams adopting a different ethos.

"[Christian] McCaffrey gets an F from the perspective of the Panthers after signing a deal that made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL ($16 million per season). He missed 23 of 33 games in the first two years of the deal from 2020 to 2021, and Carolina was actually better after trading him in 2022 with a RB timeshare of D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Carolina at least parlayed his hot start in 2022 to a second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round pick from the 49ers, but CMC still costs $18.3 million against the Panthers' 2023 cap. McCaffrey returned to superstar form in 2022 and looked like he could carry San Francisco to a Super Bowl, but they also didn't give him his long-term deal."

Douglas Clawson, CBS Sports

Making a running back their focal point was the right thing to do at the time. Especially considering the Panthers were planning on releasing Cam Newton - their previous face of the franchise.

It didn't work out as anyone had hoped. But looking at how things fared since, Fitterer deserves credit for cutting his losses from the moment he took control of personnel and put Carolina in a better position for sustainable long-term success.

McCaffrey was a fan favorite and remains beloved in the Carolinas. But this wasn't a smart business move by the Panthers and in today's market, there's no chance the dual-threat would have received anything like the same amount.

Win some, lose some.